Case Study by Raymond Cheah RGD, Graphic Designer at the University of Toronto
The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering is among the world’s best engineering schools, and is top-ranked in Canada. The program prepares the next generation of engineering leaders and advances solutions to the world’s most critical challenges through experiential learning, multi-disciplinary collaboration and groundbreaking innovation. This vibrant and diverse community includes 7,500 students from 109 countries, 250 professors and 47,000 alumni around the world.
When U of T Engineering broke ground on the Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship (CEIE) in June 2015, it launched a new era in engineering education, research and innovation. Engineering Strategic Communications (ESC), the Faculty's in-house communications team, knew there was a great story to tell, but, in a highly competitive media market, the message had to stand out if it was to be heard. It was also important to sustain momentum and excitement for the project through the two years between the groundbreaking ceremony and the anticipated opening of the new building in 2017. The audience for this project included residents of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (population: 6.5 million) as well as U of T Engineering students and alumni.
- Influence perceptions of the Faculty through vibrant illustrations of our engineering community
- Spark and sustain conversation about our new building in the local community and among current students and alumni
- Reflect our urban environment in the heart of the St. George campus of the University of Toronto
- Educate the surrounding community about the positive impact of engineering on our everyday lives
We felt the most effective strategy would be to communicate in a way no one expected. The 276 feet of construction hoarding surrounding the build site became our canvas. After discussing several options with faculty leaders, we called on renowned Toronto-based graffiti artist Jason Wing (also known as SKAM) to collaborate with us.
The result became the longest single street art installation in Toronto; environmental graphic design in graffiti style, reflecting the rich history and unique impact of U of T Engineering. More than 50 interconnected illustrations feature everything from solar cars to 3D-printed hearts. This unlikely collaboration between a university’s in-house communications team and a prominent graffiti artist provided a unique opportunity to educate the surrounding community about the importance of engineering in society, while stimulating conversation about U of T Engineering and its new building. As a medium, graffiti helped to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) accessible and exciting to the public.
ESC pitched the graffiti wall story to media and created an online presence to influence existing perceptions of the program. We also collaborated with colleagues across the University to feature the graffiti installation as part of Nuit Blanche 2015, a city-wide, all-night art event, providing an opportunity for the public to interact with the mural and with U of T Engineering ambassadors.
The project became a centrepiece for campus tours, media coverage and print materials (including holiday wrapping paper). When the hoarding is no longer needed for the construction site, the Faculty plans to repurpose sections of the artwork for donor recognition. Pieces of the mural may also decorate the inside of the CEIE when it opens in 2017.
We conceived of and completed this project in just seven weeks, starting in early August 2015. The initial planning stages included drafting the visual concepts in-house, extensive consultations across the University and with the artist and accelerated approvals with U of T’s senior leaders and the City of Toronto. The painting took three weeks.
Phase 1: Evaluating the options
Construction hoarding is a reality of major infrastructure projects. For projects conducted by large institutions, hoarding surfaces are often wrapped in vinyl with designs portraying important campaign messaging and imagery meant to excite and inspire the surrounding community.
When considering our approach for covering the hoarding, we knew our solution needed to:
- Withstand seasonal wear and tear over two years of construction
- Be easy to repair. (A large surface area facing a busy street is a target for posters and vandalism.)
- Accommodate workers, as it would surround an active construction site. (The crew would need to remove large sections of the hoarding periodically to move materials and vehicles in and out of the site.)
Given these parameters, we began to brainstorm beyond vinyl wrapping, which is when the idea of graffiti surfaced. As the team thought through the project's parameters and overarching objectives, this unconventional approach became the winning idea.
Our team leader in Engineering Strategic Communications had once taken a tour of downtown Toronto's Graffiti Alley, which is where she first learned of SKAM. After visiting his online portfolio, she reached out to him to gauge interest. Shortly thereafter, he came in for a meeting to discuss the project's scope, timeline, costs and process.
Phase 2: Planning
Before taking the idea to senior leadership, we needed a concrete plan. First, we created inspiration mood boards of photos that represented the spirit of U of T Engineering and highlighted symbols of tradition, innovation, professional diversity and extracurricular activities. As the in-house designer, I sketched the images out to form a loose plan for the mural in terms of placement and sizing. After several mock-ups, we further refined the placement of primary and secondary images along the 276-foot expanse.
Phase 3: Consultation & Approval
We needed to ensure that the highest level of administration would feel comfortable providing their support for this non-traditional approach on a compressed timeline. We consulted with engineering faculty members, communications specialists and senior leaders across U of T. There was some concern from key stakeholders about the legibility of the written components of the mural, particularly the name of the building, as the nature of graffiti lettering can be hard for the average person to read. To alleviate legibility concerns, we asked the graffiti artist to mock up the lettering, keeping in mind our need to be a little less abstract with the CEIE name. We then presented the mock-up to our stakeholders, which helped to ease their concerns. As the circles of consultation widened, our plan strengthened and gained momentum. Ultimately, through collaboration and open conversation, we expedited approvals (all the way up to U of T's President) in record time.
Phase 4: Painting
The approved sketch served as the blueprint for SKAM, the lead graffiti artist on the project. We also provided a binder of photos and architectural renderings as reference for detail and colour accuracy. SKAM was supported by fellow artists Aleksandrs Popelavskis and Alex Lazich (also known as Bacon), each of whom brought their own skills and style to the project.
First, the artists mapped out the placement of the primary images based on the blueprint, then filled in the smaller elements. They added large fades (all done with spray paint, not rollers), followed by more detailed work. Colour played a critical role in setting the right tone for the piece. To give the mural a focal point, SKAM and his team used cooler colours at the ends of the street-facing portion of the mural and applied punchier, warm colours toward the middle.
After painting began, we were asked to include a few additional images that were not accounted for at the outset. Once we identified the optimal placement and size of the new elements, we consulted with the artist. Thankfully, the additions were not too difficult to integrate into the overall design, and the artists were accommodating. After 11 solid days of painting, the team covered 2,208 square feet with more than 300 cans of spray paint in over 100 colours.
Timing: We had seven weeks to turn a glimmer of an idea into the longest single graffiti installation in Toronto. There were two reasons for the time pressure:
- ESC wanted the painting to launch in tandem with Orientation Week to add to the momentum and energy around the project and to leverage possible media interest in orientation activities;
- The mural had to be completed before the artist left to go abroad for his next project.
The condensed timeline meant working smart and quickly, and left little room for error. To accomplish this the team regrouped daily — sometimes a few times a day — to ensure the project was progressing at the right pace. Once painting started, we did a morning check-in with the artist to answer questions and ensure nothing was missed or misinterpreted along the way. This project was a priority for our team and for all of our stakeholders, which meant everyone was keen to provide and implement feedback quickly.
Planning: With a surface area as large as a tennis court, the scale of the project posed a challenge. We wanted to seamlessly tell the story of U of T Engineering’s rich history and impact, both locally and globally, while shattering preconceived notions about engineers and engineering. But how do you depict the richness of Canada's premier engineering school while telling a coherent visual story for people walking in different directions?
During the planning stages, we also had to consider the hoarding’s utility as part of an active construction site. Pieces of the hoarding would be removed for periods of time to allow large equipment in and out of the site. We needed to think about key access points for the crew and create a dynamic design that would remain meaningful even when panels were removed for a time. A tremendous amount of forethought went into achieving the right combination of images given these parameters.
Creating a mural at ground level also presented an opportunity for interactive features. While planning, we considered the scale and the kinds of images people might want to take photos with. Anticipating what would resonate with both audiences (average Torontonian and U of T engineers) was a challenge. As predicted, one of the most photographed sections of the mural is the Nanoleaf, the world’s most energy-efficient light bulb, invented by U of T Engineering alumni. The heart, which represents U of T Engineering’s new Translational Biology and Engineering Program, is also a popular photo backdrop for couples.
Medium: Graffiti lends itself to improvisation, which was an exciting prospect for this high-profile piece of art. We created a solid plan and issued a thorough contract with a reputable local artist, accounting for periodic touch-ups to correct damage that might occur when panels are removed or to address vandalism. We also obtained required permits from the City of Toronto, made arrangements for the artists to store their materials near the site for the duration of the project, and asked the artist to include all sub-contracting, materials and equipment into the project estimate. Since we intended to repurpose the artwork at a later point (i.e., framing small pieces of the mural for donors), we also accounted for this in the contract.
One of our key objectives was to influence perceptions among the local community by demonstrating U of T’s creativity, innovation and vibrance in a bright, engaging and public way. This was measured by assigning quantitative evaluations to social media responses. Comments like “Pretty artsy for engineers!” and “It’s flipping beautiful. Come for a visit…” illustrate an appreciation for the creativity of U of T Engineering among local residents. Nearly 100 per cent of the comments we evaluated were positive and celebratory.
Further, the team aimed to spark and sustain conversation about the CEIE among students, prospective students and friends. This was measured primarily by media coverage, social media engagement and in-person interaction with the mural at Nuit Blanche.
Proactive regional public relations
Our in-house media relations strategist worked with SKAM early on to identify any unique features that might interest media. We confirmed it would be the longest single graffiti installation in Toronto. With this information, we targeted radio and commuter newspapers as well as arts and culture publications. We favoured online platforms where multimedia, such as photo galleries and videos of the art, would thrive.
RESULT: Twelve regional media stories (appearing in Metro Toronto, blogTO and Techvibes, to name a few) with more than 5.5 million impressions trumpeted the Faculty’s innovative, unlikely and collaborative approach. Further, the three mural-related stories we published on our own news site received 5,510 pageviews.
Our in-house web/digital strategist created an interactive online hub filled with compelling content that provided information about the vibrant graffiti mural and background on the CEIE building. This hub included many components that were easily shareable via social media, including a video interview with the artist, quick facts and a clickable installation to explain every visual element in the artwork. The team drove traffic to the site through plaques mounted on the ends of the mural, published stories, social media, homepage web banners and souvenir buttons distributed to visitors during Nuit Blanche.
RESULT: The online hub received more than 1,125 page views. The video, produced in-house, has been viewed more than 500 times to date. Social media engagement across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram resulted in more than 282,900 impressions across all related posts.
We leveraged U of T's Nuit Blanche sponsorship agreement to have the graffiti installation listed as a featured exhibit. Then we engaged the U of T Engineering community to recruit a group of student and staff ambassadors to speak with visitors and distribute souvenir buttons throughout the all-night arts festival.
RESULT: More than 5,000 visitors stopped at the mural during Nuit Blanche, and approximately 500 guests engaged with ambassadors (measured by the number of buttons distributed).
Within the U of T community, the mural has become a source of pride and celebration. Many areas within the Faculty incorporated the artwork into their own initiatives, illustrating transferability:
- The Division of Engineering Science prominently featured the mural in its alumni magazine.
- The Dean’s Office included an image of the mural in special letterhead created for the Faculty’s annual report mailing.
- The engineering recruitment team incorporated the mural into its tours for prospective students.
- Leftover buttons from Nuit Blanche served as a keepsake to visitors at an open house event in the fall.
- News sources across campus, including student papers, featured the graffiti wall.
The CEIE graffiti installation took an otherwise static surface, which is generally used for branding and campaign imagery, and turned it into an inspiring and dynamic piece of art that brought focus to the spirit and diversity of the U of T Engineering community.
- Think in every direction. This was my first foray into large-scale environmental design, which is vastly different than print, and allows the designer to control certain aspects of the user experience. With a mural of this size, we had to take every angle and possible audience encounter into consideration. How will it look from up close vs far away? Will it make sense for people walking left to right, and right to left? Will the tree line interfere with key portions of imagery? Will the design still make sense when panels are removed? Will the scale of the images work for selfies so people can share easily on social media? Thinking in 360 degrees (and then some) was critical to the success of the piece.
- Choose your collaborators well, and trust them. Working with an artist like SKAM was wonderful. He brought a great deal of expertise to the project, and had plenty of experience doing commissions for large companies. While we strategically planned and mapped out each piece of the mural, the actual painting process was largely organic, with some improvisation. It meant art-directing to a point, then trusting the artists and giving them space to translate our blueprint into a dynamic and stunning mural.
- Document as your project unfolds. We took photos and video at every stage of development. We even made an animated gif of our team's "lightbulb moment," which appears on the timeline of our online hub. All of these assets are valuable behind-the-scenes content to share with others online or through social media.
- Think beyond the well-trodden path. This project shows it is possible to implement unconventional initiatives in large organizations in a timely way, despite perceived obstacles.
- When you are trying to gain consensus for a big idea, collaborate and seek consultation early. Getting key stakeholders on board with a new approach early on helps tremendously in gaining wider support.
The U of T Engineering Strategic Communication department was awarded the Not-for-Profit Communication Department of the Year award at the IABC GOLD QUILL AWARDS 2016.
The CEIE x SKAM graffiti wall won both the IABC/TORONTO Ovation Award of Excellence and the at the international level.
Agency: Engineering Strategic Communications, University of Toronto
Strategy: Catherine Riddell
Strategic Planning: Shilpa Gantotti
Media Relations: RJ Taylor
Creative Director: Raymond Cheah RGD
Graffiti Artists: Jason Wing (a.k.a. SKAM), Alex Lazich (a.k.a. Bacon), Aleksandrs Popelavskis
Website Development, Photography & Videography: Roberta Baker
Partners: City of Toronto, University of Toronto Communications
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